Daily Fantasy Playbook: Defense/Special Teams and Kicker Strategy

Daily Fantasy Playbook: Defense/Special Teams and Kicker Strategy

By Chris Raybon (Senior Daily Fantasy Expert), last updated Aug 29, 2014

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Chris Raybon is the Senior Daily Fantasy Editor at 4for4 Fantasy Football.

Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisRaybon.

“Chris, your articles are great…”  is a statement I’ve heard a lot in the past few weeks. I started my intro like that because I don’t currently have an Instagram account, and therefore need other shallow ways to toot my own horn online. Just kidding. I’m going somewhere with this; that’s what the three dots at the end of the quote were for. The second part of the quote goes: “...are you even going to do a defense/special teams and kicker article?”

The fact that there’s even a question as to whether I would spend time addressing these positions is indicative of the edge to be had over the typical entrant by making great defense/special teams and kicker selections. Many entrants tend to spend minimal time analyzing these positions, and many also limit themselves to only minimum priced options. Heck, some daily fantasy players even resent that kickers and defense/special teams are fantasy positions at all.

If you read on, you will find out that there are concrete ways to make your defense/special teams and kicker selections more accurate. Also, you’ll learn that just like the other fantasy positions, you should use a different salary allocation strategy depending on what game type you’re entering.


Defense/Special Teams and Kicker Salary Allocation:

Defense/Special Teams scoring is very volatile from week to week. On average, the position scores 67 percent more or 67 percent less than their actual seasonal mean fantasy points per game. That 67 percent figure is called the coefficient of variation (CV), which is the standard deviation in weekly fantasy points divided by the mean of weekly fantasy points. At 67 percent, defense/special teams is the most volatile fantasy position along with tight end (also 67 percent).

Kicker, on the other hand, is the least volatile position in fantasy from week to week besides quarterback. Kickers’ CV is 48 percent; this means that on average, they score only 48 percent more or 48 percent less than their weekly mean fantasy points each game.

Both positions are low scoring; kickers averaged 7.6 fantasy points per game and defense/special teams averaged 7.2. There is also not much differentiation between the highest-scoring and lowest-scoring players at either position. Because of this, both positions generally have very low salaries, leading owners to routinely limit themselves to only minimum priced options. However, there are times when it may be beneficial to spend up a bit.

The inherent volatility and low-scoring nature of defense/special teams means you do want to invest the least amount of salary you possibly can into the position in head-to-head cash games. This is a sound strategy, as there will usually be an extremely cheap defense/special teams option that has an attractive matchup each week. Meanwhile, the low volatility of kickers means that cash games would be an opportune time to invest a few extra dollars into your kicker if you have the salary space available.

In tournaments, paying a little more for a defense/special teams is the generally the optimal strategy. I say “a little” because the position gets most of its value from its opposing matchup (more on that in the next section), and as I just mentioned, there are usually cheap alternatives with good matchups on a weekly basis. Nevertheless, when choosing between multiple defense/special teams options at different price points, tournaments are the time to pay for your preferred, more expensive option.

Choosing a slightly higher priced defense/special teams option in tournaments also qualifies as somewhat of a contrarian strategy and helps differentiate your lineup, which is desired in tournament play because you have to beat out a much larger portion of entrants than in cash games.

FanDuel is the main daily fantasy site that still requires a kicker, and sometimes you’ll have a few extra dollars beyond minimum price to spend on either kicker or defense/special teams in the same price range. Consider the following example, where you have a kicker and a defense both projected for 8 fantasy points. An approximate floor can be calculated by multiplying the CV by the mean, and subtracting that result from the mean:

  • K: 8 - (8 * 0.48) = 3.84

  • D/ST: 8 - (8 * 0.67) = 2.64

As you can see, kickers have a significant advantage in terms of floor, so spending a little more for a good option in cash games can give you a slight edge over entrants strictly limiting themselves to minimum priced options and an edge over entrants who spend more on defense/special teams instead. In terms of ceiling, the opposite applies:

  • K: 8 + (8 * 0.48) = 12.16
  • D/ST: 8 + (8 * 0.67) = 13.36

Defense/special teams has a higher ceiling, which intuitively makes sense because they can score touchdowns while kickers cannot. So to recap, on Fanduel, if you have extra salary to spend beyond the minimum, spend it on kicker in cash games and on defense/special teams in tournaments.


Defense/Special Teams Strategy

Which Stats Are Most Important When Analyzing Defense/Special Teams?

There are a multitude of different statistics that make up fantasy scoring for defense/special teams, so I ran correlations of each statistic to fantasy points per game to see which ones influence fantasy points per game the most.

Correlations Between Various Statistics and D/ST FP/G, 2013

Correlation to FP/G

Def TD/G




Fum Rec/G






Kick Ret TD/G


Points Allowed/G


It’s no surprise that defensive touchdowns and interceptions lead the way. Teams averaged 0.98 interceptions per game in 2013, but only 0.61 fumble recoveries. Moreover, 13 percent of interceptions were returned for touchdowns, while only eight percent of fumbles were. Thus, interceptions should be emphasized over fumble recoveries.

Points allowed is also less strongly correlated to defense/special teams fantasy points than turnovers and sacks; limiting points alone will usually not be enough to post a good score unless accompanied by some turnovers and sacks. Furthermore, the more a team forces turnovers and sacks, the less likely it is that they allow a ton of points, anyway.


How to Target Interceptions

When projecting the opposing quarterbacks who are most likely to throw interceptions, avoid making the mistake of looking too much into a quarterback’s interception rate of the previous season. While it may seem counterintuitive, the fact is that interception rate has almost no year to year predictability.

I looked at the correlation between interception rate in year y, and interception rate in year y + 1 for all quarterbacks who played at least 25 percent of their team’s snaps in consecutive seasons over the past five yearss. It turns out that the correlation is an extremely low 0.06 between interception rate in year y and year y + 1, meaning past interception rate has nearly no predictive power in terms of forecasting future interception rate.

The statistic most likely to predict interceptions is actually completion percentage, according to a recent study. To make sure this is actionable information, I used my aforementioned quarterback sample to calculate the correlation between completion percentages in year y and year y + 1.

It turns out that completion percentages from one year to the next have a strong 0.65 correlation, meaning we can use past completion percentage to predict future completion percentage. The quarterbacks projected to be the most inaccurate should be your defense/special teams targets.

The NFL average completion rate was 61.2 percent in 2013. Here are some quarterbacks to target for interceptions in 2014:

  • Geno Smith: 55.8% completion percentage as rookie in 2013.
  • Eli Manning: 58.5% career completion percentage; led NFL in interceptions three times in his career.
  • E.J. Manuel: 58.8% completion percentage as rookie in 2013.
  • Joe Flacco: Hasn't completed over 60 percent of passes since 2010.
  • Chad Henne: 58.1% completion percentage in two years with Jaguars; more career interceptions than touchdowns.
  • Brian Hoyer: 59.4% career completion percentage.


How to Target Sacks

Over the past five seasons, 44 percent of a quarterback’s sack rate (sacks divided by pass attempts) in year y + 1 is explained by his sack rate in the previous year (year y). This means that quarterback sack rates, unlike interception rates, can be used to predict future sacks. Although the offensive line and opposing pass rush factors in, some quarterbacks are simply better at getting rid of the ball quickly, while others are not.

While sacks don’t have the same touchdown upside of interceptions, they happen a lot more frequently; teams averaged 2.52 sacks per game last season compared to 0.98 interceptions. In addition to targeting inaccurate quarterbacks, target those who are prone to taking sacks.

The average sack rate was 0.071 in 2013. Here are some quarterbacks to target for sacks in 2014:

Also note that running quarterbacks such as Russell Wilson (0.108), Colin Kaepernick (0.094), and Cam Newton (0.091) all had high sack rates in 2013, but none are ideal targets due to otherwise efficient play and strong defenses.


The Impact of a Team’s Defense

After you’ve located potential quarterback targets, it’s time to analyze the defense they will face. The reason I suggest looking at defenses after compiling your list of targets is because team defensive efficiency metrics don't correlate as strongly with fantasy points as do interceptions and sacks. The defensive efficiency correlations are shown below.

How Defensive Efficiency Metrics Correlate to D/ST FP/G, 2013

Correlation to FP/G

QB Rating Allowed


Pass YPA Allowed


Opp. Drive Start


Rush TD/G Allowed


Yds/Play Allowed


Pass TD/G Allowed


Tot Yds/G Allowed


Rush Yards Allowed/G


Pass Yards Allowed/G


Rush YPC Allowed


Quarterback rating allowed has the strongest correlation, which is no surprise since it takes into account completion percentage, interception rate, and the next highest correlated efficiency metric, passing yards per attempt allowed. Note how pass defense explains a lot more of the variance in fantasy points than rush defense. This is because passing plays are a prerequisite for sacks and interceptions. When selecting a defense/special teams, emphasize pass defense over rush defense.

A team’s defensive strength comes into play a lot more in tournaments. Certain teams have quality players on defense that are better at forcing incompletions and getting sacks than others. In cash games where you’re trying to pay as little as possible for a defense/special teams, you will usually end up choosing a less distinguished defense with a good matchup. In tournaments where it is acceptable to pay up a bit, you can target a higher quality defense if they have a desirable matchup that week.


Defense/Special Teams Home/Road Splits

The home field advantage that exists in the NFL should factor in to your defense/special teams selection. Check out the difference in performance at home versus on the road in 2013:

Home/Road Splits of Defensive Stats, 2013



Percent Difference

Def TDs/G












Fum Lost/G




Opp Comp %




Points Allowed/G




Defense playing at home tend to pile up more sacks and interceptions and allow less points. Even better, defenses at home last season scored an impressive 38 percent more touchdowns than defenses on the road. Don’t be afraid to pay a little more for a preferred option home against a weak quarterback in tournaments.


The Impact of a Team’s Offense and Game Scripts

A team’s interceptions thrown on offense had a moderate correlation to their defense/special team fantasy points, as did their offensive points scored. If a team’s quarterback is turnover-prone or their offense is poor, that squad's defense/special teams value takes a hit. This is because turnovers and poor offense is not conducive to gaining a lead and creating difficult passing situations for the opposing offense, which is where most defense/special teams fantasy points are scored. In other words, you want the opponent of your defense/special teams to be in negative game scripts where the defense can expect a pass, which increases the likelihood of a sack or interception.


The Impact of Special Teams

Special teams doesn’t factor into defense/special teams scoring as much as team defense because the only way to score is on a touchdown. There were only 13 punt return touchdowns and seven kickoff return touchdowns in the NFL all of last season. While special teams aren’t a major factor in defense/special teams scoring, analyzing them can be useful when deciding between multiple options.

Punt return yardage per game, specifically, has a significant 0.50 correlation to defense/special team fantasy points. A good defense will force more punts, giving a punt returner more chances at taking one to the house.

Yards per punt return also explains roughly 23 percent of the variance in defense/special teams fantasy points. A good punt return unit combined with the probability of seeing a decent number of punts give a defense/special teams an added bit of value. You can analyze punt return averages for each team and their returners, and also check out how many yards each team allows on punt returns.

Film study can also be helpful in analyzing special teams to assess return teams and coverage units. You want to target punt coverage units who allow a lot of returns (rather than fair catches) and those who miss a lot of tackles. On the flip side, look for return teams who seem to be “on the verge” of taking a punt to the house. These types of situations will not always be apparent, but can provide a useful edge when deciding between multiple similar options in a given week.


Defense/Special Teams Recap

  1. Defense/special teams are very volatile from week to week, dictating paying as little as possible for them in cash games.
  2. It is acceptable to pay a bit more for a preferred option in tournaments.
  3. Defense factors in to the position’s fantasy output much more than special teams.
  4. Turnovers and sacks matter more than points allowed.
  5. Target opposing quarterbacks with low completion percentages and high sack rates.
  6. Emphasize pass defense over rush defense.
  7. Target teams who are likely to be on the positive side of the game script.
  8. Special teams is not much of a factor in defense/special teams fantasy points, but an advantage in the punt return game can be valuable when choosing between similar options.


Kicker Strategy

Which Statistics are Most Relevant When Analyzing Kickers?

Just as I did for defense/special teams, I took a look at how strongly various statistics correlated with kicker fantasy points per game

Correlation of Various Statistics to Kicker FP/G, 2013

Correlation to Kicker FP/G

FG Made


FG Attempts


FG Pct.


Team Offense Points Scored


Team Offense Drive Start


Team Offense Passing YPA


Offensive Comp %


Extra Points Made


Team Offensive Yds/Play


Team Offense Rush TD


Team Offense Total Yds


Team Offense Rush Yds


Defense Sack/G


Defense Int/G


Team Offense Pass Yds


Team Offense Rush Yds/Car


Defense QB Rating Allowed


Team Offensive TO


Team Offensive Ints Thrown



How to Approach Field Goal Accuracy

Field goal accuracy is obviously important because your daily fantasy kicker needs to be able to capitalize on his field goal opportunities. The problem with trying to gauge a kicker’s accuracy is that we don’t have a large enough sample size to make a truly accurate assessment; kickers generally only attempt between 20-40 field goals in a season. Complicating matters even more is that some kickers will attempt more difficult field goals than others, further skewing their accuracy percentage.

To be sure, I looked at all kickers since 2008 who finished in the top-32 in field goal attempts in any two consecutive seasons within that time frame. I wanted to see if there was any correlation between a kicker’s accuracy in year y, and his accuracy in the next year, y + 1. The results confirmed that the sample is indeed too small; less than one percent of field goal percentage in year y + 1 is explained by field goal percentage in year y.

The results improve to 44 percent of variance explained when looking at a kicker’s accuracy in a given season compared to his career percentage. The takeaway is that accuracy is important but hard to predict. If choosing between similar options, look at a kicker’s career accuracy to get the best read on how truly accurate he is.

I would be careful of kickers with recent accuracy struggles, which could indicate a possible unreported injury. Furthermore, sometimes teams with struggling kickers eschew field goal attempts in favor of going for it, which significantly hurts that kicker’s value.


How a Team’s Quarterback Affects it’s Kicker

What jumps out are the relatively strong correlations between the offensive passing statistics (completion percentage, yards per attempt, interceptions thrown) and kicker fantasy points. Kickers should be targeted on teams with good quarterbacks, or teams facing poor passing defenses. Responsible for moving their offense downfield, quarterbacks will be the main catalyst in getting a kicker scoring opportunities throughout a game. In a nutshell, you want to target the kickers on teams whose quarterbacks have a good matchup that week.


How a Team’s Defense and Field Position Affects it’s Kicker

A kicker’s team’s defense has an impact on his fantasy output, albeit not as big of an impact as his team’s quarterback play. The reason for the correlation between the defensive statistics and kicker fantasy points is that kickers benefit from their team being in good field position, which comes from a combination of good offensive play and good defensive play.

Where a kicker’s team starts its drive has a significant impact on their fantasy output. If a defense plays well, they’ll keep their opponent pinned back in bad field position, resulting in punts deep from their own territory and good starting field position for their offense. After looking at a team’s quarterback play, look at their how their defense matches up against the opposition’s passing game to further differentiate between possible kicker selections.


Kicker Home/Road Splits

The home field advantage present in the NFL results in a slight increase in kicker scoring at home.

Home/Road Kicking Splits, 2013



Pct Difference













Extra Points  Made




Home field can be used as a tiebreaker when choosing between similar options.


How Weather Affects Kickers

It is best not to select kickers facing extreme weather conditions, such as 15-plus mile per hour winds or heavy snow. Also, all other things being equal, a kicker has an advantage the warmer the weather, because the ball will travel farther. Keep this in mind especially when looking for 50-plus yard field goal upside in tournaments.


Kicker Recap

  1. Kickers aren’t very volatile, so it is acceptable to spend up a bit from the minimum to maximize your floor in cash games.
  2. The lack of volatility dictates spending the least amount of salary possible on them in tournaments.
  3. Field goal accuracy is important but hard to get a read on due to small sample size. Your best bet is analyzing career accuracy because it is te largest sample size available.
  4. Prioritize targeting kickers on teams whose quarterbacks have the best matchups.

  5. Target kickers on teams who have a good defensive matchup versus the opposing offense.
  6. Kickers have a slight advantage at home.

  7. Kickers have a slight advantage in warmer weather and should be avoided in extreme winds or snowfall.


Starting next week, Chris will be breaking down the weekly values at both DraftDay and FanDuel, giving tips and showing you how to cash in on the Daily Fantasy Sports movement. You can get a free 4for4 subscription by depositing at either site.

Filed Under: Preseason, 2014

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